Is pain good or bad?
This was the question asked recently by physician and author Matthew Loftus in an essay entitled “Arcs of Life” published in The New Atlantis. Loftus makes the case that the contemporary obsession with avoiding pain has led to an increasing acceptance of doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia, even for infants and for those suffering with mental distress. Our approach to pain amounts to, as Loftus puts it, “Eliminating suffering by killing the sufferer.” The appeal is made mostly to our collective commitment to autonomy:
The euthanasia regime begins with a pitch to the smartest among us. Wouldn’t you like to go out before the party winds down, before age and decrepitude shatter the autonomy and strength you cherish so deeply?
So much of life in the modern world is shaped by secularism, which assumes, among other things, that the only way to be fully human is by experiencing our best life now. Or, to paraphrase a poem by William Ernest Henley, to be the masters of our own fate, the captains of our own soul.
This commitment, Loftus suggests, is the primary reason that the medical community has embraced something that has become known as the “The Baconian Project.” This view, first espoused by 16th-century scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon, argues that the primary goal of medicine is to minimize human suffering. Medical technology should pursue that end, and compassion is redefined as whatever reduces or prevents pain and suffering. This includes, if it serves that end, terminating the life of a baby in utero or assisting a suffering elderly person to end his or her life.
However, argues Loftus, the zeal to create a pain-free utopia undermines three things for which it strives.
First, autonomy is undermined. Abortion obviously ends the decision-making potential of children in utero who may, if given the chance, choose to live. In fact, survivors of abortion, such as Colson Center National Conference speaker Gianna Jessen, consistently tell us that they want to live. Autonomy at the end of life is also increasingly compromised for certain members of a population, often in the name of preserving it, wherever assisted suicide has been embraced. The “right to die” inevitably becomes a duty to die in order to ease the burden of one’s suffering on others.
Second, the commitment to alleviate pain is undermined when it becomes an end rather than a means of medicine. Abortion is a clear example of this. Loftus writes:
Long before the third trimester, a fetus will withdraw from an instrument and release stress hormones in response to medical procedures in the womb. Reactions like these are often chalked up to simple reflexes that you might see if you managed to tickle a baby in utero. And yet if fetal surgery that is meant to save the life of the child is performed, anesthesia is given without fail—but if you’re killing the child at the same gestational age, medical authorities assure us that the procedure is painless. Don’t believe your lying eyes when you see that baby try to move away from the forceps.
Third, the commitment to eliminate pain at any cost, though often sold in the name of compassion, ultimately undermines compassion. The sheer numbers of those killed by abortion and euthanasia suggest that what we often call a commitment to compassion is in reality a commitment to convenience. In Canada, 10,000 people were euthanized in 2021 alone. Nearly a million unborn children are killed in the United States every year.
The only real solution, Loftus argues, is to commit instead to a different vision of human life; that life begins and ends in a natural arc and possesses incalculable value throughout. We also must reckon with dependency; that we are all born dependent, will die dependent, and will remain dependent on others throughout our lives. Acknowledging this reality leads to true compassion. Ignoring it leads to killing the suffering instead of caring for them.
We should recognize that pain and suffering are neither synonymous, nor are accurate metrics of value. We have the technology to manage physical pain, and God has tasked us with providing comfort to those who are dying or living with pain. When we do, we act like Jesus. Indeed, it may be that this caring for people through the suffering will be the Church’s most powerful witness of Christ to the world in the days ahead.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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